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Issues will continue after new board is elected

WINSTED — With just a few weeks to go before the 2011 election, Mayor Candy Perez said she expects many of the same issues facing the current Board of Selectmen to carry forward into the next administration, whoever is elected.Perez acknowledged that one of the board’s most pressing issues this election year has been dealing with the school budget and the state Board of Education’s contention that the town has underfunded Winchester Public Schools this year by more than $1.3 million. The $18.6 million budget, which was cut by a Republican-led majority, has put Perez in the middle of a battle between the selectmen and state officials, who announced this week that they will investigate the town for failing to meet the minimum budget requirement (MBR) of $19,958,149 for Winchester schools.“On any board where the majority has the final say, that is what the decision is,” Perez reasoned, regarding the board’s continued insistence that the state is wrong on the MBR. “Those of us in the minority, we can speak our minds and say what we need to say, but we can’t change the final decision. What you can do is make sure that all views are considered.”Starting off the 2009-11 term with a 5-4 Democratic majority, Perez saw her coalition erode as Smith departed from the party on a number of decisions, most notably with a key vote to kill a deal with the Winchester Land Trust to protect town-owned land and bring more than $400,000 in revenue to the town. Since then, Smith has joined the Republicans in openly criticizing the Winchester Board of Education for alleged fiscal mismanagement. As communications have broken down between the Board of Selectmen and the school board, the GOP-led majority on the selectmen’s side has grown increasingly impatient and unwilling to negotiate new terms for the school budget.“I think the further and deeper you get into these things, the more you feel you have to be right,” Perez said. “They’ve taken a position for so long, they have to be right.”The problem is that the state Board of Education has repeatedly said the board is not right. On Oct. 5, the state board voted to investigate a complaint against the town regarding the underfunding of the school system. In previous correspondence, the state board has indicated that it expects Winchester to fully fund its schools under the state-mandated MBR for the year.“The state came back to us and said, ‘Thank you for your reasons, but those are not part of the MBR language, so you must proceed with the MBR,’” Perez said, noting that the Board of Selectmen’s majority voted to take issue with the MBR in correspondence with state officials.Perez said that, though the board majority has voted not to increase this year’s school budget to meet the MBR, she supports the increase. “I’m in agreement [with the MBR] because of what I see in the schools,” she said. “I look inside the schools, I have gone down to their open houses and I’ve been in and out of all the buildings. When you see what kids have and don’t have versus other educational institutions, in my mind, they need the money.”A typical example, Perez said, would be Winchester students looking at antiquated images on old overhead projectors while students in other school systems are being taught with Internet images and videos, displayed with modern projectors.If and when the MBR issue is settled, Perez said, the town will then be faced with a new problem — either having to pay for the increased cost of the school budget or finding a way for the school system to operate with less money than the Board of Education expected to receive. “The schools are operating now with increased class sizes,” Perez said. “If the budget goes to $18.6 million, the class sizes will get even bigger.”On the other hand, if the state ends up forcing Winsted to pay the full $19.9 million for this year’s school budget, taxpayers may be faced with a supplemental tax bill, while selectmen and Town Manager Dale Martin will struggle to find cuts on the municipal side of the budget to make up for the ensuing shortfall.“Many young parents and their children are moving out of Winsted,” Perez said. “A lot of middle-class parents and kids are moving out because of the school system — not because of the schools, but because of the lack of funding, or what the town is being perceived as providing. I hear people saying they will not move to a bigger house in Winsted because of the way the schools are. Our economic engine is not being supported.”The good news, Perez said, is that she believes Martin will have support from both Republicans and Democrats after the election, making him the first town manager in several years who should remain in office and not be ousted due to partisanship on the board. “It looks like he might be staying,” she said. “It appears he has the support to make it through the elections, and that will be a good thing. I think Dale can stabilize a lot of things for us, and he’s working to get economic development done. If we can work locally with business leaders and reach out to people, then perhaps we can take a step forward.”

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